POSTSCRIPT / December 11, 1997 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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De Venecia a more tenacious infighter, media manipulator

EVERYONE in Manila is now suddenly a political analyst. It seems everybody has a theory, if not a juicy inside story, on why Speaker Jose de Venecia was chosen by President Ramos as Lakas-NUCD standard bearer for the 1998 elections.

Earlier reports quoting party insiders said a worried Mr. Ramos wanted to nip a party revolt that De Venecia threatened to lead if he were not anointed. To prevent a party split and a poll debacle, the story goes, the President had to endorse De Venecia over former Defense Secretary Renato de Villa.

De Villa was generally regarded as enjoying the inside track, so De Venecia’s anointment caught many by surprise.

The morning after, Mr. Ramos explained that he chose De Venecia because he had the best chance to win the 1998 presidential elections. This despite poll surveys showing De Villa ahead of the Speaker.

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De Venecia, the classic trapo, was the better infighter and media manipulator. (For Pinoys-in-exile who may still not know, trapo is short for “traditional politician” and its literal meaning, “rag,” happens to be very appropriate for the stereotype).

From the time he latched on to the small ragtag Ramos band that bolted the Laban party in 1992, De Venecia has shown tenacity and a wily disposition to overcome political problems that would stop lesser creatures.

From a minority Lakas-NUCD bloc in the House, he fashioned a rainbow coalition that catapulted him to the Speakership. He proceeded to glue together a formidable machine that transformed Mr. Ramos from a president propped up by just 23 percent of the voters to one virtually assured of reelection in 1998 were it not for a term limit imposed by the Constitution.

With political skill and patronage, he steered the passage of every piece of legislation that Malacañang wanted.

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With De Villa presumed to be favored by the President, De Venecia fought on. He mobilized his extensive network fueled with incredible resources (read: money) and patronage. In the few weeks before Dec. 8, he ran simultaneously on several parallel lines aiming to catch the favored attention of the President.

He was everywhere, brokering peace with disparate rebel groups, welcoming the return of police officers captured by NPA rebels, making statements on every momentous issue, praying to the gods at Mt. Makiling, meeting with Cardinal Sin and other power brokers, pushing critical legislation that President Ramos wanted so badly, etc.

To make sure this whirlwind activity bore fruit, he saw to it that media covered him. His pictures landed almost daily, and prominently, on the front pages that one might suspect he had bought space. There was no escaping him, drooping eyebrows and all, even when one hopped from one TV channel to another.

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In contrast, De Villa was low key even after the two-Sunday party consultations were abbreviated, many thought, to favor him. When big issues erupted in media, he was hardly heard from while even two-bit politicians had some paragraphs in the banner stories.

The big to-do about a crime surge, especially the kidnapping-for-ransom of businessmen, was tailor-made for somebody in the mold of General De Villa, whose entire career of 44 years centered on peace and order. But he failed to wade into the agitated discussion.

Within the party, De Villa was also handicapped in that he was not an original Lakas member, while De Venecia was one of the founders, the all-powerful Secretary-General, and whose one hand was on the party purse strings. The non-political general joined in only months ago when President Ramos told him to consider the presidency.

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DE VILLA the good soldier is widely expected to accept the President’s decision, especially because of a prior covenant among the aspirants to support whoever is anointed. But until Thursday, De Villa was still reported to be weighing the option of breaking away to make a go for the presidency.

This is another time when De Villa must show decisiveness. He should rush out from his tent and announce something.

He needs time to assess the field, including his financiers (are they still willing to bankroll his campaign?), the organization (can he put together fast a national network outside Lakas-NUCD that will get the votes and have them counted?), the power brokers (can they be persuaded to stick with him and deliver the votes?), the mood of the electorate (can he still catch the voters’ attention amid the gathering bedlam?), and the real plans of President Ramos (will he tell De Villa the real game plan and does De Villa figure in it?).

This can be a long process. The longer De Villa delays announcing his decision, the faster he will sink into political oblivion.

Did he not prepare for such a contingency as De Venecia grabbing the President’s favor from him? He should have.

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